City Hall to the White House: Can’t Get There From Here

Before Bill de Blasio and Eric Garcetti decide to run, they ought to look back on Lindsay and Yorty in 1972.

New York Mayor John V. Lindsay withdraws from the Democratic presidential race in April 1972 in Milwaukee. (Associated Press)

If the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, can run for president in the already crowded 2020 Democratic field, why shouldn’t the mayors of New York and Los Angeles? After all, each city is bigger and more complicated than plenty of states. But there’s just one thing that Bill de Blasio, who’s not ruling out a race, and Eric Garcetti, who just did, ought to remember about the last time the mayors of the Big Apple and the City of Angels decided they were best suited to topple a controversial Republican president: It didn’t turn out so good.

The year was 1972, and Richard Nixon looked vulnerable. Mayor Sam Yorty of L.A.—a conservative Democrat known as “Travelin’ Sam” for his peripatetic publicly financed travel—had spent nearly half his time away from his city in the last half of 1971 before launching a quixotic campaign in which he sought to out-Nixon Nixon on law and order. Yorty complained that his hometown was “an experimental area for taking over of a city by a combination of bloc voting, black power, left-wing radicals, and if you please, identified communists.”

Yorty received the backing of William Loeb, the extreme right-wing publisher of the Manchester Union-Leader newspaper in New Hampshire, who thought Nixon had gone soft on Vietnam. But Yorty won just 6 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, never got any traction, and dropped out of the race just before the California primary, begging voters to support Hubert Humphrey instead of the “radical” George McGovern, who would become the party’s nominee.

John V. Lindsay’s campaign started out with more promise. The charismatic, patrician Republican who had walked the streets of Harlem to keep the peace when other cities burned in the 60s switched his party registration in 1971 to mount a campaign that proclaimed, “While Washington’s been talking about our problems, John Lindsay’s been fighting them.” No less a hardened cynic than Hunter S. Thompson professed to be impressed.

“If you listen to the wizards, you will keep a careful eye on John Lindsay’s action in the Florida primary,” Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. “Because if he looks good down here, and then even better in Wisconsin, the wizards say he can start looking for some very heavy company … and that would make things very interesting.” And if nothing else, Thompson hoped, the potential presence of both Lindsay and Ted Kennedy in the race might turn that summer’s Democratic Convention in Miami “into something like a weeklong orgy of sex, violence and treachery in the Bronx Zoo.”

But despite a cadre of loyal campaign aides that included a young Jeffrey Katzenberg and the speechwriter turned journalist Jeff Greenfield—and despite spending half a million dollars in Florida—Lindsay finished fifth, with just 7 percent of the vote.

“A disgruntled ex-New Yorker hired a plane to fly over Miami with a sign reading ‘LINDSAY MEANS TSURIS,’” which is Yiddish for trouble, Greenfield recalled in an email this week. The Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade Esposito, still contemptuous of the mayor’s party switch, declared, “Little Sheba better come home,” a reference to the popular Broadway play in which a forlorn housewife pines in vain for her lost dog.

But Lindsay pressed on to Wisconsin, and Sam Roberts, who covered the campaign for the New York Daily News, still recalls “the mixture of hope and desperation.” Lindsay’s poll numbers were in the gutter, so to build momentum, he adopted a new slogan: “The switch is on.”

“I remember naively buying into the optimism,” Roberts remembers. “I wrote a story for the Daily News that Wisconsin was not likely to be Lindsay’s last primary. As the story was transcribed in New York, the word not was dropped. When it was published, I must have seemed prescient. The switch was on all right, but to other candidates. Lindsay ran sixth. The next day, he dropped out of the race.”

The political world is different today, of course. So Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend may dream of presidential glory—and his big-city counterparts, including former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, can, too. But the track record is not encouraging. Remember President Rudy Giuliani? Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge were all mayors, but all first held other higher offices before winning the White House. Maybe, Greenfield suggested, that’s because the job of mayor “is seen in terms of picking up garbage and fixing the streets.” On the other hand, in Donald Trump’s Washington, that might be just what America needs.